Teaching in Social and Technological Networks

February 16th, 2010

Technological networks have transformed prominent businesses sectors: music, television, financial, manufacturing. Social networks, driven by technological networks, have similarly transformed communication, news, and personal interactions. Education sits at the social/technological nexus of change – primed for dramatic transformative change. In recent posts, I’ve argued for needed systemic innovation. I’d like focus more specifically on how teaching is impacted by social and technological networks.

What is the role of a teacher?

A teacher/instructor/professor obviously plays numerous roles in a traditional classroom: role model, encourager, supporter, guide, synthesizer. Most importantly, the teacher offers a narrative of coherence of a particular discipline. Selecting a textbook, determining and sequencing lecture topics, and planning learning activities, are all undertaken to offer coherence of a subject area. Instructional (or learning) design is a structured method of coherence provision.

This model works well when we can centralize both the content (curriculum) and the teacher. The model falls apart when we distribute content and extend the activities of the teacher to include multiple educator inputs and peer-driven learning. Simply: social and technological networks subvert the classroom-based role of the teacher. Networks thin classroom walls. Experts are no longer “out there” or “over there”. Skype brings anyone, from anywhere, into a classroom. Students are not confined to interacting with only the ideas of a researcher or theorist. Instead, a student can interact directly with researchers through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and listservs. The largely unitary voice of the traditional teacher is fragmented by the limitless conversation opportunities available in networks. When learners have control of the tools of conversation, they also control the conversations in which they choose to engage.

Course content is similarly fragmented. The textbook is now augmented with YouTube videos, online articles, simulations, Second Life builds, virtual museums, Diigo content trails, StumpleUpon reflections, and so on.

What is the impact of conversation/content fragmentation?

Traditional courses provide a coherent view of a subject. This view is shaped by “learning outcomes” (or objectives). These outcomes drive the selection of content and the design of learning activities. Ideally, outcomes and content/curriculum/instruction are then aligned with the assessment. It’s all very logical: we teach what we say we are going to teach, and then we assess what we said we would teach. This cozy comfortable world of outcomes-instruction-assessment alignment exists only in education. In all other areas of life, ambiguity, uncertainty, and unkowns reign.

Fragmentation of content and conversation is about to disrupt this well-ordered view of learning. Educators and universities are beginning to realize that they no longer have the control they once (thought they) did.

However, in order for education to work within the larger structure of integrated societal systems, clear outcomes are still needed. Growing accountability emphasis in all levels of education – primary, secondary, and post-secondary – suggests that the system needs to produce concise outcomes. Fragmentation, it would appear, pushes against this.

How can we achieve clear outcomes through distributed means? How can we achieve learning targets when the educator is no longer able to control the actions of learners?

The Knotted Ball of Education

Based on the courses I’ve taught with Stephen Downes over the last few years – CCK08 & CCK09 – I’ve come to view teaching as a critical and needed activity in the chaotic and ambiguous information climate created by networks. In the future, however, the role of the teacher, the educator, will be dramatically different from the current norm. Views of teaching, of learner roles, of literacies, of expertise, of control, and of pedagogy are knotted together. Untying one requires untying the entire model.

And that is precisely what I suggest.

In this short article, I’ll focus on one specific aspect of the knotted ball of education: the role of the teacher.

Given that coherence and lucidity are key to understanding our world, how do educators teach in networks? For educators, control is being replaced with influence. Instead of controlling a classroom, a teacher now influences or shapes a network.

The following are roles teacher play in networked learning environments:

1. Amplifying
2. Curating
3. Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking
4. Aggregating
5. Filtering
6. Modelling
7. Persistent presence


Social media like Twitter provide a few examples of how teacher’s roles might change. Twitter has an option available to users called re-tweet (RT). This is essentially amplification. If one Twitterer posts a link to an article in NY Times, her followers may find the article useful and then respond by re-tweeting the article. Each RT amplifies the message. Even a handful of Twitter users, with say 20 followers each, can quickly spread a message to hundreds of people. Each RT amplifies the message much like an electronic amplifier increases the amplitude of audio or video transmitters.

In networks, teachers are one node among many. Learners will, however, likely be somewhat selective of which nodes they follow and listen to. Most likely, a teacher will be one of the more prominent nodes in a learner’s network. Thoughts, ideas, or messages that the teacher amplifies will generally have a greater probability of being seen by course participants. The network of information is shaped by the actions of the teacher in drawing attention to signals (content elements) that are particularly important in a given subject area.


Several years ago, I suggested curatorial teaching (10 minute presentation):

An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected. While curators understand their field very well, they don’t adhere to traditional in-class teacher-centric power structures. A curator balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored.

While “curator” carries the stigma of dusty museums, the metaphor is appropriate for teaching and learning. The curator, in a learning context, arranges key elements of a subject in such a manner that learners will “bump into” them throughout the course. Instead of explicitly stating “you must know this”, the curator includes critical course concepts in her dialogue with learners, her comments on blog posts, her in-class discussions, and in her personal reflections. As learners grow their own networks of understanding, frequent encounters with conceptual artifacts shared by the teacher will begin to resonate.

In CCK08/09, Stephen and I produced a daily newsletter where we highlighted discussions, concepts, and resources that we felt were important. As the course progressed, many students stated they found this to be a valuable resource -a centering point of sorts. Criticism was directed at our curatorial activities with concerns voiced that we were only selecting resources that supported our views. This wasn’t the case. We drew attention to both supportive and critical views. However, The Daily was not the only source of information for learners in the course. In the Daily, we aggregated blog posts and twitter posts as well. More on that when we consider aggregation.

Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking

How do individuals make sense of complex information? How do they find their way through a confusing and contradictory range of ideas? To address this, I’ll turn to Darken’s concept of wayfinding. Darken’s work is based on large virtual worlds, but I think it translates well to the challenges we face in making sense of fragmented information. When I first started learning about the internet (pre-web days), I felt like I had stepped into a alternate realm with its own norms of behaviour and conduct. Bulletin boards and chat rooms presented a challenging mix of navigating social protocols while developing technical skills.

By engaging with these conversation spaces – and forming a few tentative connections with others – I was able to find a precarious foothold in the online medium. After a period of time, I was able to navigate the space fairly effortlessly. When a new technology appeared, such as blogs, my existing knowledge base enabled me to recognize potential uses. With a bit of background of html, ftp, and webhosting, I was able to use Pyra’s Blogger service to post to my own domain. I found my way through personal trial and error.

Today’s social web is no different – we find our way through active exploration. Designers can aid the wayfinding process through consistency of design and functionality across various tools, but ultimately, it is the responsibility of the individual to click/fail/recoup and continue.

Fortunately, the experience of wayfinding is now augmented by social systems. Social structures are filters. As a learner grows (and prunes) her personal networks, she also develops an effective means to filter abundance. The network becomes a cognitive agent in this instance – helping the learner to make sense of complex subject areas by relying not only on her own reading and resource exploration, but by permitting her social network to filter resources and draw attention to important topics. In order for these networks to work effectively, learners must be conscious of the need for diversity and should include nodes that offer critical or antagonistic perspectives on all topic areas. Sensemaking in complex environments is a social process.


Aggregation had so much potential. And yet has delivered relatively little over the last decade. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps RSS was too effective. Perhaps we need to spend more time in information abundant environments before we turn to aggregation as a means of making sense of the landscape. Pageflakes, iGoogle, and Netvibes have largely plateaued innovation in aggregation.

During CCK08/09, we used a variety of techniques to pull together fragmented content and conversations: Google alerts, Pageflakes, and grsshopper. The Daily included a list of blog posts tagged with CCK08/09 and any tweets with the course tag. But these are still rudimentary. Techmeme provides a slightly more sophisticated option of grouping broad themes. For the last seven years, I’ve held hope that information visualization (i.e. IBM’s ManyEyes) would provide a solution. After all, why should we do the heavy cognitive work when technology is uniquely suited to analyzing and generating patterns?

Unfortunately, visualization continues to be confined to what we input. I’d like a learning system that functions along the lines of RescueTime – actively monitoring what I’m doing – but then offers suggestions of what I should (or could) be doing additionally. Or a system that is aware of my email exchanges over the last several years and can provide relevant information based on the development of my thinking and work.

With the rise of social media, and with it the attention organizations pay to how their brand is being represented, monitoring services such as Viral Heat are promising. Imagine a course where the fragmented conversations and content are analyzed (monitored) through a similar service. Instead of creating a structure of the course in advance of the students starting (the current model), course structure emerges through numerous fragmented interactions. “Intelligence” is applied after the content and interactions start, not before. This is basically what Google did for the web – instead of fully defined and meta-described resources in a database, organized according to subject areas (i.e. Yahoo at the time), intelligence was applied at the point of search. Aggregation should do the same – reveal the content and conversation structure of the course as it unfolds, rather than defining it in advance.


Filtering resources is an important educator role, but as noted already, effective filtering can be done through a combination of wayfinding, social sensemaking, and aggregation. But expertise still matters. Educators often have years or decades of experience in a field. As such, they are familiar with many of the concepts, pitfalls, confusions, and distractions that learners are likely to encounter. As should be evident by now, the educator is an important agent in networked learning. Instead of being the sole or dominant filter of information, he now shares this task with other methods and individuals.

Filtering can be done in explicit ways – such as selecting readings around course topics – or in less obvious ways – such as writing summary blog posts around topics. Learning is an eliminative process. By determining what doesn’t belong, a learner develops and focuses his understanding of a topic. The teacher assists in the process by providing one stream of filtered information. The student is then faced with making nuanced selections based on the multiple information streams he encounters. The singular filter of the teacher has morphed into numerous information streams, each filtered according to different perspectives and world views.


During CCK08/09, one of Stephen’s statements that resonated with many learners centers on modelling as a teaching practice: “To teach is to model and to demonstrate. To learn is to practice and to reflect.” (As far as I can tell, he first made the statement during OCC in 2007). Modelling has its roots in apprenticeship. Learning is a multi-faceted process, involving cognitive, social, and emotional dimensions. Knowledge is similarly multi-faceted, involving declarative, procedural, and academic dimensions.

It is unreasonable to expect a class environment to capture the richness of these dimensions. Apprenticeship learning models are among the most effective in attending to the full breadth of learning. Apprenticeship is concerned with more than cognition and knowledge (to know about) – it also addresses the process of becoming a carpenter, plumber, or physician.

What cannot be communicated and understood by lecture and learning activities alone can be addressed through modelling by the teacher.

Persistent Presence

An educator needs a point of existence online – a place to express herself and be discovered: a blog, profile in a social networking service, Twitter, or (likely) a combination of multiple services. What do you do when you meet someone? Most likely, you search for them in Google. Having recently relocated to Alberta, I used Google to gain a sense of my children’s teachers, the social media network in Edmonton, colleagues at work, meetups, democamps, etc.

Without an online identity, you can’t connect with others – to know and be known. I don’t think I’m overstating the importance of have a presence in order to participate in networks. To teach well in networks – to weave a narrative of coherence with learners – requires a point of presence. As a course progresses, the teacher provides summary comments, synthesizes discussions, provides critical perspectives, and directs learners to resources they may not have encountered before. In CCK08/09, we used The Daily, the connectivism blog, elearnspace, OLDaily, Twitter, Facebook, Ning, Second Life, and numerous other tools to connect with learners. Persistent presence in the learning network is needed for the teacher to amplify, curate, aggregate, and filter content and to model critical thinking and cognitive attributes that reflect the needs of a discipline.

Still at the start…

I’m often surprised when I hear a declaration of web company’s birthday – Facebook at six years, Youtube at five years. It seems like these tools have been around much longer. Teaching and learning in social and technological networks is similarly surprising – it’s hard to imagine that many of the tools we’re using are less than a decade old (the methods of learning in networks are not new, however. People have always learned in social networks).

We’re still early in many of these trends. Many questions remain unanswered about privacy, ethics in networks, and assessment. My view is that change in education needs to be systemic and substantial. Education is concerned with content and conversations. The tools for controlling both content and conversation have shifted from the educator to the learner. We require a system that acknowledges this reality.

Provocateur of Systemic Innovation

February 4th, 2010

In light of the dampening influence of established systems on innovation, it’s worthwhile to focus on what can be done in response.

We cannot get away from systems. Even if we succeed in disrupting a particular system – say the classroom model of education – we will find ourselves confined by a new structure. What is needed is the right system for a particular era or context, not a lack of systems. As history demonstrates, even revolutionaries conserve.

A hurdle must first be overcome: the intent of any system is to normalize deviation. It’s tough to be a radical in society, for example, when you have been systematized through a mortgage, car payment, and the soft influence of social norms – i.e. what it means to be successful or well-regarded. Critical commentary is difficult because when we criticize “the system” we are in essence criticizing ourselves. By our daily actions, we reinforce the existing norms. So, in most cases, it is easier to deal with the irritants of how things are, erupt with the odd rant, but still generally play by the rules that are conducive to societal integration.

An approach of acceptance and integration is fine in many instances – especially when it meets the needs of the majority. Life is far less stressful when you’re not fighting against everyone. At a certain point, however, change becomes an obligation for self-preservation. And in extreme instances, change becomes a duty in service to future generations (such as civil rights movements).

A recap of the situation: systems normalize and we are biased in supporting existing systems because they form part of our identity. But, change is needed when a substantial mismatch exists between structures in society and the external reality or dominant ideology.

Many educators – the silent majority – are not pining for change. Funding for research and national innovation goals suggest existing universities will be here for a long (long) time. Based on my experience chatting with conference attendees and interacting with faculty, a compelling argument for dramatic change in education has not been made. Sure, we see people with mobiles, we might even post to Facebook, or we might read the odd ebook, use Google Docs, but beyond that, really, how big is the change we are talking about?

Change-blindness is related to our integration with existing systems. To step into unknown and uncertain spaces is a risk-taking action. Humanity is often more concerned about preservation.

How then can a school or university innovate?

All organizations need a new position: a provocateur (or director) of systemic innovation. The role of this individual is to specifically challenge which regular organizational activities no longer make sense and to recast policies in light of the affordances of networked technology. Many organizational policies and work routines reflect the trailing ideologies of a previous generations – a different society, a different set of needs. Innovation and adaptation are in order.

Think of a university. Do we need a bookstore? Do we need professor’s “course notes” for only $45? Do we need textbooks? Do we need lecture halls? Do we need face-to-face faculty meetings? Do we need courses? What about the current research grant writing process? Does that even make sense (especially from a perspective of time/resources invested to prospect of succeeding and length of time to required by the council to reach a verdict)?

We could get into class scheduling…or student fees…or the need for new building projects…or the administrative structure of universities…faculty unions…and so on. In each instance, many opportunities for innovation exist. But, absent someone being assigned the explicit role of thinking about innovation, most of us spend our time doing our work. And the daily drubbing drives out creativity to reflect on what we could do differently, what we could do better. Which is why we need an explicit focus on innovating the system itself.

Now that we have selected the curtain colour, let’s build a new house

February 2nd, 2010

The ideologies of an era are embedded in its systems. Eras change. Systems don’t – at least not until they are disrupted. As a result, existing systems are substantial in determining what will be adopted. Systems serve as boundary markers for innovation. The test of whether or not a new idea will be adopted is often determined how well it integrates with what exists.

Society itself is essentially a series of interlocking systems. Because we have an education system that takes care of young students for eight hours a day, both parents can work. Because we have some level of centralization of government in most countries, education systems are subject to governmental curricular and structural mandates. The book made the library. Society’s systems make the schools. More than any other element, this systemic inertia is responsible for limited innovation in education. All ideas are vetted by how they integrate with the system.

Different eras require different modes of thought and action. For example, in times of innovation in a sector – like computers in the 80’s or the web since 2000 – a blue sky mentality is needed. All things are possible. Limitations exist only in our capacity to visualize a new reality. Very few innovation push-backs are found in these periods. In a sense, these are the teenage years – our ignorance prevents us from listening to no-sayers. Other periods – such as the 50’s and 60’s in manufacturing – are periods of tweaking. The boundaries of a system are in place and systematization is the key focus.

In education we are today at the teenage years. We are at a point where we ought to be conceiving new models driven by the affordances generated by networks, technology, openness, and social software. Instead, many systems are at the equivalent stage of being pushed down the hall in a wheelchair at a senior care home.

I want to resist the mindset of measuring what is possible by the existing system.

Look at a few of the biggest technological “innovations” of the last decade: learning management systems, student information systems, interactive whiteboards, iclickers, and virtual classrooms. These tools integrate with existing systems, which is why they are successful. The systemic design of education, from curricular planning to delivery to evaluation, has not been recast in light of the web. Instead, the web has been recast in light of existing systems. In many instances, teaching and learning has been transferred to, instead of transformed by, the internet.

What is the impact of this mindset? When I present on alternative views of assessment and accreditation, or suggest non-course approaches to teaching, the inevitable push-back is “well that won’t work because of _____ aspect of the system”. Perhaps it is time that we turn our attention explicitly to working on, rather than in, the system.

Yes, working against a system is difficult. Sometimes even futile. I’m not suggesting that we “fight the man” and organize marches decrying the failure of the system. I’m suggesting something much more subtle: that we no longer allow systems-based arguments and criticism to dampen our creative exploration for what is possible in education. A period of “no boundaries” in our thinking. Forget even arguing against those who appeal to integration with existing structures. Just ignore those discussions completely. I’d like to focus instead on creating a compelling vision of what education could be given new technologies and almost global connectivity.

The timing is somewhat ideal. The growth of the internet, advancement in social media, frustration with quality of the current system (primary to university), reduced budgets, and greater awareness of the importance of creative and innovative thinkers, has created an almost perfect storm for reform. I doubt we’ll see, in our lifetime, similarly favorable conditions for change.

We are, after all, in the youth of educational reform. No point in spending it in a wheelchair or pushing around a walker.

Open isn’t so open anymore

December 29th, 2009

We need some good ol’ radicals in open education. You know, the types that have a vision and an ideological orientation that defies the pragmatics of reality. Stubborn, irritating, aggravating visionaries.

Today, I fear, open education is beset with a more moderate spirit. People are trying to make a living off of being open – i.e. openness as a utility to advance a career, gain recognition from peers, or make money. This is fine. But it’s not what I’d expect in the early stage of a movement. Ideological purity in open education had a very short existence. Instead of building a future foundation, we see instead a foundation to serve for career advancement.

This was made rather clear to me in a recent exchange on Twitter. I posted a tweet (in response to Dave Cormier’s Top 10 of 2009) saying openness is a stage through which we pass…the real impact is systemic change. Things lingered for a day or so until Alec Couros asked for clarification and I responded by saying “look at open software – we are on the way out of that movement. it changed things systemically. that’s the real impact”.

Well, then the gloves were off.

Most people who contributed to the conversation, while questioning my mental acuity, were at least willing to discuss/debate (one individual, however, took the passive/aggressive stance of someone responding as if I had questioned the Pope’s religious affiliation). D’Arcy Norman finally suggested that the conversation wasn’t too productive on Twitter and that a blog post might be in order.

That’s how we got here.

Let me start by stating that “open” is a term that is now essentially meaningless. Apparently Twitter is open. So is Blackboard. And Facebook.

David Wiley states that open is a function of gradients (”a continuous, not binary, construct”). According to Wiley, openness is not an ideological concept, like democracy, but rather a functional or utilitarian construct: like a door or window being open or partly open. I can see the appeal of this view – the value of something is discovered in its implementation. But it seems wrong to me when applied to an ideological concept such as openness.

Let’s briefly consider the gradient view of openness. It’s like saying being alive is a gradient. We are more or less alive. That may be true. A teenager, not positioned in front of a PS3, may have more “life” than a senior. But really, at some point, being alive has a threshold. Is being on life support part of the construct of aliveness? Or is a window that is open precisely 1 mm open? In both cases, we could say, well, yes, of course the patient is alive or the window is open. But not at all in a way that we commonly associate with the concepts. And, in the case of a window, of absolutely no practical use for why we would want to have a window open in the first place. Seeing openness as a gradient in education is an accommodating approach, an act of moderation.

Even democracy – a much abused and increasingly meaningless term – still has some relevance. Most of us would not say that China is a democracy. Or that the USSR was. The gradient of democracy has a threshold.

On holding hands and running through meadows with our friends

Richard Stallman has been somewhat replaced by, or even written out of, the open source movement. Stallman was (and still is) an uncompromising radical. Or at least that is how the well established proprietary software field sees him. The open source movement developed in response to what others perceived as Stallman’s unpalatable views for mainstreaming openness.

(If you’re interested, I explored this in a bit more detail in Free and Open Source Movements, part 1 and part 2 (somewhat related: Why we should share learning resources).)

I’ve stated in the past that I’m concerned about open education suffering the fate of Stallman – marginalized because it is not palatable at the “power table”. I still think this is a valid concern. But we first need a Stallman in open education before we can even begin to marginalize him. We need an idealist that sets the stage for thinking and debate around openness.

Wiley suggests that: “If another person or institution’s approach to openness doesn’t help you meet your goals, then look for help somewhere else – don’t criticize them”.

I disagree. We should criticize. We should debate. By not criticizing gradient views of openness, by failing to establish a solid foundation on which to discuss openness, we are providing an ideology for our generation, not one that serves as a future-focused movement. Openness is a hard topic to discuss ideologically because it’s important. Yes, pragmatics are easier. But pragmatics have a short life span.

Open source is often presented as a methodology, not an ideology – i.e. open source is an approach of collaborative work, shared creation, continual iteration (insert your favorative Torvalds or Raymond quote of bugs, many eyes, cathedrals, bazaars, release early/often, etc.). But openness is not a methodology. Openness is an ideology along the lines of democracy. It is worthy of theoretical discussion. And various modes of implementation should be subject to debate and criticism.

Interlocking, self-enforcing systems

We are at a point where the system of education, in spite of pundits proclaiming otherwise, is still firmly entrenched in the large interlocking systems of modern society. While we are seeing some change around the edges in online learning, this change is largely prohibitive of broader systemic change.

Ultimately, openness will be translated into systems. To a degree, we’re already seeing this. It’s Fad-wagon jumping. Just like the “green movement”. I’m sick of commercials with new cars driving through lush forests, suggesting that if only I buy their vehicle the world will be greener. Green is treated as a utility to sell vehicles. For many companies in the educational field, open is the new green: use it to sell your product.

Why is an ideological position on openness important?

Reality has a way of eroding the ideologies at implementation. In the US – and around the world, for that matter – numerous organizations exist to preserve democracy, individual rights, etc. This is necessary because theoretical ideals are shaped (altered) in the grind of reality. Sometimes this is necessary – eras change, values change. Sometimes, however, we must – through sheer will and stubbornness – bend reality to the ideals that have been thoughtfully debated.

If our foundation of openness is what we see today – where obviously closed systems like Blackboard and Facebook are called “open” – then I’m concerned about what openness will mean in the near future. At our current pace, openness will soon be indistinguishable from utility and monetization. While we often hear criticism of Stallman’s inflexibility, he has done more to advance openness by not accommodating than he could have possibly done by assuming a moderate or even commercial stance.

In education, open source is taking a back seat. Educators are using tools like Ning, Blogger, Facebook, and SecondLife, with little or no consideration to ideological openness. Pragmatics reign.

The open source movement is riding on the successes of the late 90’s, early 2000. Innovation has shifted to proprietary systems. Other than the usual reference to LAMP, what major new open source initiatives have gained attention in the last five years? Almost every popular software/technology developed during this time is not open source: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, iPhone, Kindle, etc. The only tools that readily come to mind are Wordpress, and to a lessor degree, Drupal.

Kinda-open tools rely on trust between the company and the user. But terms of use can change quickly. Yes, a public outcry has caused Facebook to step back from initiatives like Beacon and Amazon to apologize for deleting 1984 from Kindles. But the outcry of the masses is hardly a suitable basis on which to build openness. With each attempt at reducing our personal freedom (such as the recent soft-forced transparency in Facebook), we risk becoming acclimated. This seems to be Facebook’s approach – try something, weather outrage, implement it (i.e. status updates from several years ago).

Most of us have become satisfied with “free” in terms of cost, not in terms of code. In this regard, I often reference Mark Pilgrim’s post on “free enough”:

WordPress is Free Software. Its rules will never change. In the event that the WordPress community disbands and development stops, a new community can form around the orphaned code. It’s happened once already. In the extremely unlikely event that every single contributor (including every contributor to the original b2) agrees to relicense the code under a more restrictive license, I can still fork the current GPL-licensed code and start a new community around it. There is always a path forward. There are no dead ends…It’s not about money; it’s about freedom.

Where does this leave us?

Google has defined openness in their organization:

There are two components to our definition of open: open technology and open information. Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the Internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire Internet (and not just benefit Google). Open information means that when we have information about users we use it to provide something that is valuable to them, we are transparent about what information we have about them, and we give them ultimate control over their information.

Google is not interested in openness beyond a utilitarian view. In fact, Google is the ultimate user of openness – they proudly proclaim that they are “built on openness” and that they are “the largest open source contributor in the world, contributing over 800 projects that total over 20 million lines of code to open source”.

Why are they doing this?

For competitive reasons. If Google found the best leverage in competition with Microsoft (and others) on a proprietary premise, they would willingly pursue it. Google is direct in stating that they feel “openness will win”. For Google, openness is a lever of competition, not a principle to be pursued in its own right. If, and when, a different basis for competition is discovered, openness will take a back seat. The goal, after all, is profit.

What should we be doing?

I’m unsure. Openness should mean something. It should be driven by ideology, rather than convenience. As a foundational principle in education, openness should be discussed, critiqued, encouraged, and aggressively preserved. Or perhaps, openness can best be conceived as the cloth on which the patterns of education are stitched.

Obviously some type of definition of openness in education would be helpful. What does it mean to be open? What is an open methodology? What does openness look like in relation to technology, information, learning content, administrative systems (transparency of the student record and related data collection by an institution), and pedagogy?

On one level, it would be helpful if we were able to provide commentary on the degree to which an institution is open (an Openness Ranking?) by looking at their use of open source software, open scholarship, licenses applied to content, etc. Despite its failings, PISA is still capable of making its way into policy discussions and decisions.

Do we need an EFF-like organization that preserves openness? An advocacy group?

Do we need greater formalization and promotion of openness within education? Or will openness as an ideology have little or no traction outside of a small group of marginal fanatics?

The uncertainty on how to organize ourselves is precisely what has caused openness to veer to the pragmatic. Why spend days, even months, debating seemingly insignificant details of openness? Why not just produce something and share it in any manner you wish? Why not just let openness evolve as it is?

Robert Hutchins has stated that “the death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment”. A similar concern exists for openness in education.

The quality of our thinking in these still early stages of openness will produce future systems and related affordances. The Federalist Papers, for example, were important in shaping the future of the Western world. Much of the debate could be treated as irrelevant and inconsequential. But the time spent in establishing idealistic roots – rather than pursuing more readily achievable pragmatic goals – has paid substantial dividends.

Future of learning: LMS or SNS?

November 10th, 2009

Google and Facebook are very different companies. Google has its roots in content – their explicit aim is to organize the worlds information. Facebook, in contrast, is socially driven with the aim of helping “you connect and share with the people in your life”.

The distinction between these two approaches is important for educators to consider, as we face a similar dichotomy in how we approach teaching and learning with technology. Google’s early models viewed information as an entity of inherent worth. As a result, Google made accessing information its top priority, simplifying the disaster of Yahoo search.

But then, in early 2000, something happened: the web became a two-way medium, partly fulfilling Berners-Lee original vision of a read-write web. Google, dominant in the information/data organization space, missed this shift. Sure, they played around with social networking tools (Orkut), but somehow managed to mess up Jaiku, Dodgeball, and JotSpot.

In contrast, Facebook – in error or through brilliant anticipation – based its online model on social connections and information sharing based on those connections. This reality was most apparent for me in 2007 when I started receiving friend requests from family members and friends – people who had shown little interest in the social aspect of the web until that time. Google looked at the web and saw information to organize. Facebook looked at the same web and saw people who needed to be connected.

Facebook’s model is the one that will be successful in the long run.

Google now recognizes this, as reflected in their rapid shift to a social focus of their services: Friend Connect, Latitude, and Social Search. I could add Orkut to the list, but they haven’t made much impact in most countries. Where Google now provides content, it does so through social and contextual means, connecting friends through shared search interests or locations. Friend Connect offers an array of tools for people looking to form and foster connections with others. I’ve been a bit reluctant to use this service extensively because Google has a habit of killing off experiments (Notebook) that aren’t successful.

All is not fun and games in the land of Facebook either. FB is skilled at idiocy, evidenced by Beacon and similar boundary-pushing initiatives that seem to treat people only as entities in need of connection, not as entities with contextual connection interests. Nor am I very comfortable with their privacy contract. Who can trust an organization that can turn this nonsense into a pleasant sounding service?:

Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (e.g., photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalized experience.

Really? You’ll do that for me? Aw, thanks Facebook. You are more awesome than awesome itself. Google has launched several positive initiatives recently that are helping to restore my trust – Data Liberation and Google Dashboard. Facebook still functions on the assumption that if we are able to connect with others in innovative ways, we’ll accept, even welcome, privacy intrusion.

The second flaw in Facebook is its centralized, closed structure. Data goes in. Not much comes out. Facebook is a central gathering place that is positioning itself as an alternative infrastructure to the web. Chant with me: “All I need is Facebook. Everything else to too distracting and confusing”. In order to compete, Google has opted for a strategy of openness – open protocols, partnerships (Android), and the like. That has hardly put a dent in Facebook’s growth, currently with over 400 million users. Convenience trumps openness (remember the assent of Microsoft?).

As Google continues to morph into a more open and distributed version of Facebook, educators should pause and focus on insights that can be gleaned from the FB/Google experience. There are several of significant importance for the development and future of online learning.

First: Most organizations currently use a learning management system (LMS) such as Moodle or Desire2Learn. These systems are content-centric. Their objective is to organize and manage content, just as Google did in early 2000. Because higher education is particularly enamored with content, an LMS is a critical service. It’s completely the wrong model, however, and this will become increasingly apparent in the next several years.

To survive, LMS vendors will need to transform their offerings on the social network model of Facebook. ELGG is an excellent alternative to an LMS, but most organizations are not yet willing to accept a network-centric tool as an alternative to Moodle (disclaimer or bragging – you choose: I was on ELGG’s initial advisory board that never fully materialized, and used the software for several pilot programs in 2005 with Red River College and with Duke Corporate Education). ELGG is a better model of what learning will/should look like than any of the current contenders in the space. And yes, for you open-source lovers of Drupal and Wordpress, I include those software tools in the “not as good as” category.

Second: The wild card in education today is abundance. We simply have too much information and we can’t make sense of it all. It changes too quickly. Many universities rely on a “design today, use for three years” course design model. It worked great in 1950. 2009 – not so much. Greater adaptivity of content is required. Learning resources should be tagged with a “best before date” so we’re not teaching information that is no longer accurate. LMS’ perpetuate the course model. And that is their greatest flaw.

Third: Complexity is quickly becoming a type of conceptual language that all members of society should be fluent in. When something is complicated, every piece has a place and a right answer exists. Our education model reflects this view – get the experts together, let them tell us what the answers are, then design curriculum to reflect those answers. It’s all knowable. Complexity, on the other hand, recognizes that numerous interacting elements will form and reform to produce patterns that we can’t anticipate in advance. Complicated=jigsaw puzzle. Complexity=weather.

Fourth: Managing abundance and complexity requires a different view of teaching and learning than currently forms the foundation of education. The content-centric view reflected by LMS’ must be replaced with more adaptive network models. Instead of experts and designers serving as the key sensemaking and wayfinding agents in curriculum, social networks and their ability for context-sensitivity must play a greater role.

If Google and Facebook serve as an example, some degree of transition will be required for both LMS and social networking services (SNS). While Google has adopted greater networking features in the last few years, Facebook has also increased its focus on content (images, videos, etc.). At this stage, however, LMS’ will need to make a far greater transition for long term educational relevance than an SNS like ELGG.

Technologically Externalized Knowledge and Learning

October 20th, 2009

Let’s take a step back and consider how well we are using learning technology in contrast with what is possible given advances over the last decade. Ideologies influence design, then design constrains future options. We don’t have to look very far to see examples of this simple rule: classrooms, design of organizational work activities, politics, and the operation of financial markets.

What we create to survive during one era serves as neurosis for another. In education – particularly in technology enhanced education – a similar trailing of ideologies from another era is observed.

For example, education consultants and speakers commonly declare “if a student from 100 years ago came to our classrooms, she would feel right at home”. Obviously, this is an absurd statement (even if we overlook the challenges of time travel). Education has undergone enormous changes to curriculum, instructional methods, and technologies used. Classrooms today have a more diverse student population, greater attention is paid to the needs of students with special needs, and (for good or bad) students are instructed in different ways of knowing and understanding – in contrast to the singular world views of only 50 years ago. While pundits are wrong in criticizing schools as unchanged in a century, they overlook the more obvious challenge: learning itself is unchanged. Content, student, teacher, interaction (maybe), and assessment; in various combinations, continues to form education’s core.

What are the ideologies reflected in this approach to learning? And do we still need them?

Without going through a painful attempt to deconstruct learning and its systemic origins, I think it’s safe to state the following as the key elements of a weltanschauung that define formal education:

1. We know what students need to know in advance of their arrival (the learning needed can be defined)
2. Through manipulation and sequencing of content and interactions, we can get students to learn what we’ve already decided they need to learn (control)
3. Students at a similar age/grade/program level have a similar knowledge base. Even if we don’t make this explicit, how we design and deliver learning in K-12, university, and corporate settings is evidence that we hold this view. (similarity)
4. Structure, goals, outcomes, and assessment are all good. For that matter, coherence is good. Learning needs a target. (coherence and structure)

Other ideologies exist, but these are particularly influential in education, impacting design to accreditation.

What is wrong with these views?

To return to the opening statement, these views reflect an ideology that is growing in obsolescence in relation to the world outside of classrooms and training labs. When does a student know the structure of a problem in advance of solving it when she’s trying to create a YouTube video? When do a group of children know their learning outcomes when they choose to create and play a game? When does a salesperson know in advance that their is a correct way to engage a foreign client and thereby when the business of their organization? Learning, occurring under contrived conditions in classrooms, bears only a faint resemblance to real world problems and challenges. This is hardly news. Educators have known this for decades. Case studies and problem-based learning were developed partly as a response to the fabricated classroom environment.

Pedagogical innovations, as expressed in constructivism (in its many, many shades), do not provide the full force required to pull away from irrelevant ideologies that seek to warp learning to reflect needs of a different age. This failure to overcome ideologies is due to an inability, to date, of educators to rethink the learning model. Reformers have largely worked within, rather than on, the system of education. Working within the system has resulted in status-quo preservation, even when reformists felt they were being radical. Illich failed to account for how educational institutions are integrated into society. Freire spoke with a humanity and hope that was largely overlooked by a comfortable developed world incapable of seeing the structure and impact of its system. To create and nurture change, a message must not only be true for an era, but it must also resonate with the needs, passions, interests, realities, and hopes of the audience to whom the message is directed. As a result, pedagogy has not influenced learning broadly. It has lifted the spirits and motivations of small camps of educators for brief periods. But it has not altered learning in a way that transforms the system of education.

The externalized generation…

The last decade has provided individuals with the tools to continually externalize their thoughts and ideas. History is generally revealed to us through significant artifacts. We have books (artifact) that capture certain time periods. But we don’t have the raw daily conversation. We have a sanitized view of history. Future generations will likely have access to far more historical information than we currently have. Through Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, SecondLife, podcasts, Flickr, and blogs our daily conversations can be captured. Conversations that occur on Facebook or Twitter do not vaporize the way conversations around a boardroom table do. As both Vygotsky and Wittgenstein argued, language gives birth to thoughts. Twitter gives birth to identity, to being. Technology has enabled our generation to externalize – through video, pictures, audio, text, and simulation – our ideas. Once externalized, a trail of identity and conceptual development is left for future consideration and analysis. (I wrote more on the role of externalization and technology in this paper from 2006 (.doc))

Finding a cure for stale ideologies

Instead of working within the system of teaching and learning, let’s turn our attention to changing the system itself by suggesting responses to the ideologies discussed previously:

1. The learning needed can be defined
2. Control is needed to achieve required learning
3. Students at similar stages need similar learning
4. Coherence and structure needed for learning

French philosophers (always blame the French…but the Germans contributed their share as well) have lead us to relativistic views that could be used as a method for challenging these four ideologies. This would provide hours of fun, but with little practical outcome. The development of chaos and complexity theory offer another approach, but models in the physical sciences are often only useful as metaphors in the social sciences.

Education has had enough theorizing (yes, I get the irony). Let’s throw in a dash of pragmatics and see where we end up. In fact, let’s start at the smallest element in the learning process: a connection. Instead of trying to squeeze curriculum into a myriad of epistemological views and adding a splash of psychology and sociology, I suggest we zero in on connections. Biologically, learning is as simple as the firing of neurons. At a conceptual level, learning involves the connecting/weighting/strengthening of links between concepts and ideas. At a social level, learning involves interacting with other individuals (and increasingly, technological agents). How are connections formed? What does a particular constellation of connections represent? How important is technology in enabling connections? What, if anything, is transferred during an interaction between two, three, or more learners? What would learning look like if we developed it from the world view of connections?

Introducing [something that I haven't named yet]

Here’s the basic concept: technological advances in how content is created and how individuals interact are at a sufficient stage to serve as a replacement to traditional classrooms. Enter Technologically Externalized Knowledge and Learning (TEKL). Or Connector. Or Learnometer. Or learnalyzer. Or Learnabler. Or future learning approach. I have no idea what to call it without evoking the cheesy Batman “pow” images and shark repellant from the 70’s. For know, I’ll stick with the acronym TEKL.

What is TEKL? TEKL is a physical, wearable device that captures our physical and virtual interactions and assist us in recognizing and forming knowledge connections based on our past interactions, our social network, and our current work or personal interest needs. The image below expresses the elements of TEKL and provides additional detail on the function of various agents.:

Technologically Externalized Knowledge and Learning

Technologically Externalized Knowledge and Learning

Components of TEKL:

Profile: Our profile is essentially our identity online. We can contribute to the formation of our identity by completing profile pages on Facebook, our organizational social network or directory (i.e. IBM’s Blue Pages), or Google Profile. However, our identity and profile will be shaped by what others say about us online and by the indirect messaging evident in the types of people we connect with (i.e. if 90% of your friends are of a certain political or religious view, the probability of your politics/religion being similar is high). The portion of our profile that we control (i.e. what we say about ourselves) could be used for TEKL to suggest social (geographic) connections at conferences or other venues. Google Latitude – and numerous other services that map profile/social network to geographical location – is an example of what an early prototype of this service might look like. The intent of the profile feature of TEKL is simply to make available certain aspects of ourselves for connecting with other people and with information. Over time, our profile is augmented with additional information extracted from our patterns of interaction. Eventually, the trails left in our interactions and in our word/language use will enable TEKL to know us well enough to provide general guidance and direction (counseling?)

Patterning Agent: The patterning agent provides metrics, feedback, and visualization. How many words have I spoken today? How did I develop conceptually today (concepts are address by a separate agent – more on that below)? If I’m seeking accreditation in a particular field, how much progress was made? How do the ideas I addressed today match against ideas I’ve expressed in the past (my profile). Essentially, this agent visualizes our social networks and our interactions with others, providing insight into our knowledge and learning habits.

Discovery Agent: The discovery agent actively solicits additional information based on our current context and our social network. For example, if I sent an email to a colleague three weeks ago addressing, say, the headaches I have with my investment banker, the discovery agent would continually “seek” opportunities to connect me with individuals who have related patterns of communication (say a colleague in my social network who has a great investment banker). My communication and information patterns are constantly matched with those in my social network. Connections are recommended that I may not have noticed on my own. The discovery agent also serves as “constant Google” role, providing new and updated information based on previous emails, texts, tweets, phones calls, web searches, courses, and conversations. This agent can provide a valuable role when activated at an organizational level – i.e. “George, a colleague in UK is displaying similar patterns of conversations, would you like to connect with her?”. Privacy, obviously, is a huge concern here. Does the organization own our words and interactions? (by offering suggestions for interactions, our work habits would be made explicit, analyzed, and then matched).

Matching Agent: The matching agent analyzes an individual’s conceptual development. This requires that all of our interactions and conversations are first recorded. If a field has been well defined, a matching agent can make recommendations to information and social connections that would provide value for our learning. If I decide I want to be a nurse or an accountant, I can load the attributes of this work-type into TEKL and it would provide continual information and social recommendations to help me “become” a nurse or accountant.

Monitoring Agent: The monitoring agent works closely with the matching agent. It essentially serves as an “overlay” agent, determining progress toward our goals. With the profile of a particular career fully loaded, I could see regular indications of progress toward the requirements accrediting bodies allocate to that field. And, when I’m done being an accountant, and decide I want to be a carpenter, this new work-type can be installed into TEKL and my existing competencies and conceptual understandings can be measured against my new career. Instead of duplicating my learning as I change careers, I’m only required to develop those skills and conceptual elements that I’m still missing.

Mentor/Guide: The mentor/guide aspect of TEKL is the human/social function. When we decide to explore a new field, we may wish to have the value of a human guide, sharing personal stories and recommending approaches to our own learning and knowledge growth. E-harmony and other online dating services have altered how people date and find partners. TEKL offers a similar learner/teacher connecting service. Our profile is matched with educators/instructors, suggesting ideal relationships for learning.

As we go through the day, TEKL merrily records, matches, monitors, and recommends our learning and knowledge needs. When we go to bed, TEKL process our conversations (verbal – after all, everything is recorded), our email, our work habits, and our information seeking activities. Then, when we wake up, we receive a learning and knowledge status report, providing us with intelligent and relevant information as well as recommendations for greater personal efficiency and critical sources of information. The is a daily personal knowledge and learning GPS that provides direction and progress.

How does this move the field of learning forward?

How does this overcome the ideologies that education has to date been unable to shed through pedagogical reform?

First, given nature of today’s complex problems – we have hit the limits of cognition in the head. We need to rely on the network as a cognitive agent. Solving the biggest problems of humanity will require a pedagogy built on networks and the distributed knowledge amplification opportunities they allow.

Second, it pushes learning into the background. Rather than saying “I am learning now” – a nonsensical statement as we are constantly learning – it makes what we’ve learned explicit only after learning, rather than before (i.e. “learning outcomes”). Where the learning is undesirable (a misconception, for example), feedback is provided through both social networks and through conceptual patterns analysis.

Third, it accounts for the complexity of learning by permitting learning needs to be formed and reformed based on current needs and context. The learner is, in the much abused term, “in control”. Learning as foraging.

Fourth, instead of squeezing all students into a curricular path that ignores individual distinctions, students are continually provided personalized (ugh) content and connection suggestions.

Fifth, the coherence and structure of learning is not solid and fixed as in a course. Instead, coherence is continually shaped and formed as new connections are suggested, existing conceptual networks are challenged (by social networks and patterning software). Structure is a by product of learning processes, used to evaluate quality of learning in relation to some other entity (say, the competence and knowledge to be a nurse or a business person or a plumber). Where no ulterior motives – such as accreditation – are sought, evaluation is not a significant concern.

The real issue

The real issue is not related to technology. It’s the conceptual jump that’s most difficult. For example, the functionality expressed in TEKL exists in various tools already. The key value produced by TEKL is to connect the pieces in a meaningful manner that allows for personalization, utilization of social networks, exploration of patterns, and layering of “knowledge and skills” over an existing profile to offer new learning opportunities.

Different areas of research and entertainment – such as language analysis, data visualization, social network analysis, matching services on Amazon, friend suggestions on LinkedIn – have made significant inroads analyzing and matching information based on context and need. TEKL is, in a sense, a connecting agent drawing together proved functionally various fields and directing this connected structure in the service of learning and knowledge growth.

Utah State OpenCourseWare, lowriders, and system design

September 11th, 2009

Utah State University has announced the closure of its OpenCourseWare initiative due to budget woes. I call nonsense (or BS). Apparently OCW needed $120,000 per year. Given the size of Utah State University, I’m going to guess they have an annual operating budget somewhere in the range of $300-400 million. This is not a budget shortfall – this is a commitment shortfall. 120K is a fraction of a fraction in light of the larger university budget.

This illustrates my concern about centrally organized open educational initiatives – they have a single point of failure: funding. There is a solution. It’s called systematization.

Let’s consider lowriders (the cars/trucks, not the jeans). I’m not into lowriders. This is mainly due to my general lack of being cool. But it is also partly due to how people react to after market modifications. When I buy a new vehicle, I like things to be fairly painless. Air conditioning? Yes. Power windows? Yes. (can you even get new cars without those options?). Satellite radio? Yes. However, if the salesperson stated it would take a few weeks to months to get specific features like GPS, I would likely pass. Why? Because certain options are not really options. They are cast as additional features, but in reality, we expect them as part of our vehicles. These options have been systematized into the development of the vehicle.

Lowriders, on the other hand, are true after market vehicles. Expensive customization is the general rule here. Which means if you didn’t buy your vehicle as a lowrider, there’s a very slim chance you’ll get it customized. A small fraction of society will pay for this extra work.

What does this have to do with Utah State?

Everything. The OER and OCW movement(s) are fundamentally flawed in where they assign openness. Openness is being treated as separate from curriculum development and delivery. Openness is viewed as an after market feature. And most universities aren’t too eager to pay for the extras.

Openness should be built into the process of curriculum design – it should be systematized just like so-called options of air conditioning and power windows in vehicles. As long as openness is separated from the rest of education, it will be seen as a cost-cutting option. Which is really rather silly. The 0.034% savings to Utah’s budget this year reveals the precarious position open education holds when treated as an optional add on…

Struggling for a metaphor for change

September 2nd, 2009

In a skype conversation with Tony Karrer last week, our attention turned to change. Specifically, what is it that is changing in society? With technology? How do these changes impact corporate learning? Or higher education?

Given the breadth of change, is it possible to find a metaphor that can readily be used to capture not only what has changed but what we (as individuals and as organizations) are becoming?

I’m generally fairly cynical about catch-phrase metaphors such as “flat world”, “long tail”, “tipping point”, “[anything]2.0″ and so on. These phrases fail to capture the full complexity of the change they are trying to define. However, as models (and any model is at best a simplified abstraction of the phenomenon they intend to represent), catch phrases serve as initiation devices. It is a far easier to sit down with someone who has not been following technological developments and express change through terms like “web 2.0″ than it is to do a quick review of the history of the web, limitations of early web-based models (one-way flow) and the recent return to read-write web models, crowd sourcing, etc.

What is changing…

Rather than offering a metaphor – largely due to the fact that I haven’t yet discovered one that captures what I want it to – I’ll quickly run through meadows of change and describe what I think exists. This process of trying to define “what is the fundamental nature of change” is one that I have to pathologically tackle annually. In 2006, in Knowing Knowledge (.pdf here), I listed a series of seven broad change factors:

Change is shaping a new reality under the fabric of our daily lives. Seven broad societal trends are changing the environment in which knowledge exists:

1. The rise of the individual: Individuals have more control, more capacity to create and to connect than in any era in history.
Relationships are defined by convenience and interest not geography. We can work wherever and whenever. Time and space no longer limit global conversations.
People are able to connect, share, and create. We are co-creators, not knowledge consumers. Content generation is in the hands of the many. Co-creation is an expression of self…a sense of identity…ownership. We own who we are by the contributions we make.
2. Increased connectedness: Connections raise the potential for adaptation. The power of the human brain is derived from the capacity of each neuron to form many connections. Entities capable of connection forming are capable of adapting. The greater the number of connections possible, the more adaptive the organization.
We are being remade by our connectivity. As everything becomes connected, everything becomes transparent. Technology illuminates what was not discernable to the human eye.
3. Immediacy and now: Everything is now. Knowledge flows in real time. Global conversations are no longer restricted by physical space. The world has become immediate. New information changes markets in minutes. New programs are written in hours, building on the openness and work of others. Leaders must know what happened five minutes ago, not only what happened yesterday. Our filters of information and knowledge assume delays and stopping points, so we can assess implications.
4. Breakdown and repackaging: It is all in pieces. Knowledge is unmoored. The selection, flow, and discussion of knowledge have all moved from controlled spaces (at the point of creation or filtering) to the domain of the consumer. We take small pieces. We mix them. We create personal understandings.
Shared understandings happen only when we absorb similar patterns as others…or when we create shared patterns. Today, we receive our news, our entertainment, our learning, from distributed means. Two people in the same household stitch together different understandings based on the pieces each used.
5. Prominence of the conduit: Connection-forming tools will always create content, but their value lies in our ability to reflect on, dialogue about, and internalize content in order to learn. Content is knowledge frozen at a certain time (a magazine article), whereas a connection is a pipeline to continue to flow new knowledge.
6. Global socialization: We are now able to socialize our activities to an unprecedented level. Technology is opening doors to conversation. Every nuance, every characteristic, can be dissected and represented in multiple ways and perspectives. The notion of what is known is confused with limitless viewpoints. Certainty is clouded by multiplicity.
7. Blurring worlds of physical and virtual: We blend our virtual interactions with face-to-face. Our water cooler conversations driven by last night’s newscast, the comic strip in the morning paper, are replaced with discussions of video logs, or content presented online (personalizing the internet with our views). The creator, the consumer have become one.
The membrane between real and virtual is thinning.
We are starting to exist simultaneously in each.

And eight broad trends influencing our relationship to knowledge:

1. Abundance: Knowledge depreciates rapidly when new knowledge is constantly being created. The life-span of knowledge is shrinking. An expectancy of relevance and currency of knowledge, for a cycle of years and decades, has now been reduced to months and years for many disciplines. Fifty years ago, education prepared an individual for a life-long career in a particular field.
2. Capacity for recombination: The ability to connect, recombine, and recreate are hallmarks of knowledge today. Small pieces, which stand on their own, can be recreated in different media, contexts, and used to create more personalized, complex structures. The material used to build a car must be put together in a precise manner in order for the vehicle to function. Knowledge can be woven, connected, and recombined in limitless ways…creating the possibility of personalized networks of knowledge.
3. Certainty…for now: Knowledge is not directly related to certainty. We think that “to know” means to abolish doubt. But knowledge is often more about knowing that we do not know…where not knowing is held in context.
Certain things we can know for certainty, but only for now. The pressures of change form quickly from non-traditional corners. Developing countries, the masses, the oppressed—all can be partakers in shaping the direction the wind of knowledge blows.
4. Pace of development: Books take years to publish. Conferences take months to plan. Magazines take weeks to write. TV newscasts take hours to produce. End user created media takes minutes to produce and circulate.
The filter of time, to take the edge off of reactionism, is torn away. Events are deciphered in real time. The ferocity of responses, views, and dissemination walks a path of passion, not cold reason.
5. Representation through media: Ours is a world shaped by diversity—text, video, audio, games, and simulations represent ideas, concepts, and emotions. The power of text fails to cast its shadow as broadly as previously. The creators of knowledge do well to think beyond text. The passivity of text is disturbed by media.
Images, video, and audio now communicate the breadth of our experience with emotion and life. A picture released by an observer in a disaster zone (war, hurricane, earthquake) is worth many times more than the commentary of an expert. An image sears the brain, “lending immediacy to images of disaster” .
6. Flow: Feedback shapes original knowledge sources. We have moved from hierarchical to network. It is end user driven. A right decision today may not be right tomorrow.
In a knowledge economy, the flow of knowledge is the equivalent of the oil pipe in an industrial economy. Creating, preserving, and utilizing knowledge flow should be a key organizational activity.
Knowledge flow can be likened to a river that meanders through the ecology of an organization. In certain areas, the river pools and in other areas it ebbs. The health of the learning ecology of the organization depends on effective nurturing of flow.
7. Spaces and structures of knowledge organization and dissemination: Spaces and structures are the organizational elements of society. We dialogue and function within these elements. Spaces—schools, online, museums, corporate boardrooms—provide the environment in which we do our conversing, meeting, knowledge sharing, and dialoguing. Structures—classification systems, hierarchies, command and control, libraries, government—provide the process and manner in which decisions are made, knowledge flows, and things get done.
Structures and spaces direct affordances. New structural approaches permit the formation of organizations prepared to manage diverse and rapid knowledge growth. Building a baseball diamond enables competitive baseball (or an impromptu soccer game). Creating a concert hall permits performances and concerts.
8. Decentralization: Aggregation of knowledge/information sources has really changed over the last few years. Until recently, most of our information was delivered through a centering agent—a television, newspaper, magazine, or radio. In this model, our primary task was to absorb or consume the structure of information created by a third party.
The centering agents have come undone. Knowledge agents continue to connect and form, but not according to the views of others. We have become active organizers of individual agents. We weave our networks.

Earlier this year, Peter Tittenberger and I listed a series of change pressures influencing the future of education in our Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning (.pdf). These change pressures were grouped into four categories: global, social/political, technological, and educational (social learning theory in particular).

My weekly elearnspace newsletter/blog) is an eight year running attempt to capture and briefly explore the impact of trends from numerous fields on education and training.

Everyone is trying to give voice to change

Popular literature and media demonstrates an obsession with trying to define what is changing in society: Friedman’s World is Flat, Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, YouTube videos (Machine is Us/ing Us, Did You Know?), and numerous sites (trendwatching) and organizations (World Future Society).

Society and its institutions are fixated with understanding the nature of change. And they should be: successful organizations will ones that are capable of sensing, responding, and adapting to trends.

Prominent expressions of change

Given the discussion of change above, what types of trends should trainers, leaders, and educators be aware of? Well, for starters, we really need to do away with traditional planning models (i.e. rigid multi-year plans) and instead adopt a futures thinking model. Futures thinking is concerned with defining current trends and creating multiple potential future scenarios. Both strategy and planning should be done in an iterative manner (see Should you Build Strategy Like you Build Software?). After all, the reality of change is quite simple: rapid change reduces the ability of an organization to control outcomes, requiring smaller planning stages to be initiated so that adaptability (i.e. responding to trends) is increased.

Finding our way…

How are leaders to make sense of trends? I’ll suggest a five stage process:

Managing Trends

Managing Trends

  1. Become adept at change observation – note trends, reflect on potential disruption of sustained trends on existing organizational processes
  2. Identify trends of relevance – which trends have “life”? Which trends are more than an anomaly? Begin to aggressively track these trends and engage in conversations with co-workers, industry, and fields experiencing similar challenges
  3. Plan a small-step response: Experiment. Pursue those experiments that show promise.
  4. If trends are pronounced and a fundamental alteration to the existing field is noted, involve others in futures thinking, exploring scenarios, and planning responses. The best way to lead is still to get in front of a parade :) . The key focus at this stage is to consider implementation responses to trends that have demonstrated themselves to be resilient and sustained.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you retire

What does this look like in practice?

Change is a constant (go Heraclitus!). Numerous change pundits suggest any combination of the following changes that will influence society in the next several decades:

  • Workforce change: aging workforce, different mindsets and expectations of younger generation, work-at-home, outsourcing, insourcing, whatever-else-sourcing, developing world will contribute substantially to future workforce, immigration will continue to grow to developed countries to replace reduced population due to smaller families, etc. New fields, new careers, and new corporate models (i.e. the “uncorporation”) will develop.
  • Globalization will continue to influence society and the renegotiation of values and world views: rise of extremism, tourism with grow, we’ll continue to buy the newest stuff (causing increased conflict between a society organized to serve consumerist needs with those seeking spiritual basis of life).
  • Environmental concerns: sustainability becomes a growing concern (cynic in me: due largely to the ability of governments and organizations to transition the capital and financial benefits to a green economy), greater pressure on travel reduction, water shortage concerns, human impact on planet continues to drive extreme sub-culture groups in society (of a growing militant nature)
  • Technology: more, better, faster. And a growing debate to what it means to be human. Military use of drones and development of robotics for household use will increase. Consumer devices will continue to be defined by social purposes (communicating and connecting) but will be amplified with greater touch-focus and location-awareness. RFID and surveillance cameras will raise concerns of individual rights and privacy. The things we share through Twitter, Facebook, and other tools will begin to influence simple things such as house insurance (”I’m going to Bahamas today” is an open invite for burglary) and even personal insurance. Legal systems will face an unprecedented role in redefining personal, government, and corporate rights.
  • Knowledge remains king. Societies around the world will continue to compete for the gains of a knowledge economy. University systems will become more prominent and important. As will corporate research initiatives. Public/corporate intellectual property will be a fun fight to watch. Research in universities will continue to be under pressure for open access. No so with corporate research. Patents and intellectual property will make life suck, because things will get more absurd before they get better.
  • Everything digital. Business meetings, publications (newspapers, books) and information in general will continue to be digitized. Once RFID tags are prominent in all information and physical products, the internet of things will blend the digital with the physical. Digital is not simply an add-on to physical. It’s a separate world (see next point)
  • Cyber-security. Governments and corporations become increasingly concerned with security. Digital information is technically accessible from anywhere. Credit cards, health records, research, and roughly any other data of value needs to be protected. Cyber-security wars will become a real concern.
  • Multinations. Big companies will get bigger. And more integrated. Corporations, not powerful governments, are the new hegemonic agents in promoting globalization. While some suggest transparency (through social media and ability of consumers to quickly organize) can play a role in keeping these organizations accountable, I’m less optimistic. Ultimately, any time a group of people get together, they will create entities to extend the reach of power in pursuit of their ideals: religion, government, corporations. This is the century of corporate power.
  • Economic shifts. The economic development of China, India, parts of Africa, and parts of South America will produce a capital (and thereby power) shift: north to south, west to east. Capitalism is far from dead, in spite of those who eagerly declare it so after the 2008 crash.
  • Education. Complex integrated societies and an economy based on knowledge will require continued education. Lifelong learning – touted for decades – is quickly becoming a reality for many individuals. Education will become more specialized, raising the importance of cross-discipline conversations and information sharing. (remember a few decades ago when “the computer guy” did everything technology-related in your organization?)
  • New sciences. Development in nano and neuro technology (blended with techno-biology) will force a rethinking of the human species in terms of free will (does a brain lesion that influences a persons disposition to violence=free choice?). New sciences will arise to dig more deeply into fields that are only being explored at a surface level today. Biology, for its amazing advances, is still a relatively young field. Greater computational power will provide new research opportunities and advances. For that matter, robots and technology will become active researchers (outside of full human control…we may not call this autonomy as some programming will be required).
  • Advanced research in the field of change. Behavioral economics, decision making theory, and game theory will provide insights into how people make decisions and change. Marketers will quite enjoy this. Change as a discipline of study will develop. Why do companies change? What are the primary principles of change? Does environmental change provide any insight into how markets change? Or how companies compete and innovate?
  • Demographics. Cities will continue to grow in size, population growth will continue (9+ billion by 2050), people will live longer (except, some developed countries may experience a drop in life expectancy due to obesity and diabetes). Apparently, location still matters even in a digital world, even if only to foster creativity (i.e. Richard Florida)
  • Amount of information. I don’t really need to provide evidence for this. Go check your inbox. Or your “to read” list. The impact of information abundance, however, is the real area of attention. As PW Anderson stated, more is different. Rapid growth of information requires organizations think of new ways to cope, compete, and cooperate.

So What?!?

Many more elements of change can be considered, but, for now, the above list provides a bit of an indication of what’s happening. For educators, trainers, and others somehow involved in the field of learning, the big questions boils down to: so what? We know things are changing. What does it mean? What should I as an academic or learning and development leader do with the list you’ve provided? What is the core, the central element of change (assuming one even exists)? What does it mean?

That’s where I’m stuck, and it brings me to the start of this post: What possible metaphor can capture the impact of these many change elements on education? On learning and development? How should organizational leaders respond?

Responding to change is much easier when the nature of the change is understood (duh). Are we at a point now where the world economy is resetting, similar to what occurred during the industrial revolution? There isn’t much of a point in talking about how to respond when we aren’t really clear on the change itself.


Resources to consider:

Shift Index (.pdf)
World Future Society (including special report of 55 trends shaping tomorrow’s world)
Trends in Global Higher Education (.pdf)
My delicious tag on trends
Ontario in the Creative Age
Global Trends 2025: A transformed world (.pdf)
Learning in Tough Times (Conference Board of Canada – for purchase, though Canadians can get it for free)

Radicalization of Education Reform

August 27th, 2009

David Wiley posted a concern about feeling out of place at the OpenEducation Conference in Vancouver last week. Since he started the conference four years ago, his sense of disconnection from the zeitgeist of the event is interesting. In particular, he’s concerned about the radicalization of education. I tried to post a response last night…but his site informed me it was a “duplicate post” (whatever that means). If I can’t use Wiley’s microphone, guess I’ll use my own here. This is the comment I tried to post:

Hi David,

Interesting post. I remember reading something about you proclaiming the end of universities by 2020 if they don’t change…and even offering your own certificates for course completion. Or perhaps I’ve read about you in a recent Fast Company article on higher education transformation. How radical of you! :)

A few somewhat random, but loosely connected, comments:

I share your concern about some of the conversations occurring in the edtech field (I think it’s broader than the OpenEd conference) relating to the role of universities. Thinking on educational reform is increasingly radical (ok, maybe it’s been radical for decades – i.e. Illich, Freire, and even Dewey). A good bit of radical thinking can be healthy, as long as it is radical thinking directed at the right object at the right time and in the right manner.

Experiences like you detail here are great for clarifying what a person actually believes. Sometimes I think I believe something…but, as I face the logical outcome of a world organized on those principles, I often find I pull back and rethink (or moderate).

At the opening of our policy meeting at OpenEd09, I mentioned that I was concerned we were going to become “Stallman” if we did not find a way to begin to speak at the power table. A group of bloggers and grassroots movements will not re-create the education system. Why? Integrated systems (networks of networks) are very difficult to change. Universities as we know them today will continue to play a role because of their tight integration to the power structures of society. In this instance, I think we need to “play within” the system in order to enact change.

However, and this gets to our conversation in your previous post, not all aspects of education are integrated in a networked manner. When an aspect of education is linearly integrated (like textbook publishing), significant disruption can occur without impacting the system of education. If all textbook content was made available in digital form, would we really suffer? I think not.

Now, to turn to your discussion of confusing means and ends, OERs are a lever of change. (I addressed university-level change in relation to OERs here as a post-OpenEd reflection: http://www.connectivism.ca/?p=151). Education is concerned with information creation/exchange. As Frank and Gabler argue, universities map the reality of the society in which they exist. As we begin to do new things with information, we also need to begin to shape our institutions differently. Higher education is in a period of rebalancing. I recently read a UNESCO report (.pdf) (pre-reading for the world conference on future of HE in France) that explored the dimension of change impact universities: globalization, technology, internationalization, research agendas, etc. Change is in the air.

While highly integrated systems don’t disappear overnight, they do change and evolve. Consider the growth of international education in Australia. Education is their 2nd or 3rd (depending on which report you look at) largest export. Entire university systems (King Abdullah University) are being built from scratch for a few meager billion. World Bank, UNESCO, OECD, and other international agencies, have turned their attention to the “virgin forest” (Fast Company quote) of HE.

I think we will see radical change in parts of education. I’m not sure where we’ll see radical change and where we’ll see evolutionary change. Teaching is the most obvious area of dramatic change given the communicative aspect of technology development. Online learning is a viable option (EDUCAUSE and Sloan-C support this development…as does the report released by US Dept of Education a few weeks ago) to classroom only learning.

The research roles of universities, on the other hand, are well integrated into society. Accreditation also continues as an important role for universities to play in society. For now at least, these two roles of universities is fairly secure in society.

In my youth, I went on a silent spiritual retreat. Days without speaking – except for ~1 hour each day with a spiritual adviser. On day 3, he made a statement that has guided much of my thinking since: never move away from something – you never know where you’ll end up…always walk toward something – this ensures you end up where you want to be. If we desire to do away with universities because we think they are obsolete (and in many ways, they are), we really don’t know what the future will look like. Change is about moving toward what we desire. But many reform advocates are not really clear on this yet. For that matter, I’ll direct the question to you: What type of higher education system are you moving toward? What are you working to achieve?

It’s not peer review if you aren’t familiar with the subject

August 24th, 2009

I have been only partially active in publishing through traditional peer-review channels. I have published perhaps a dozen articles and book chapters through this process. I am active as a reviewer for about 10 different journals and conferences. Additionally, I’ve served as special editor and invited (non-peer review) author for several journals. As conference chair and co-chair I have also been involved in selection of papers, outstanding papers and posters, etc. I understand the review process as an author, reviewer, and editor.

But I’m dissatisfied, and growing more so, with the process for the following reasons:

  1. The process takes a long time (anywhere from about eight months to several years – depending on the field). By the time an article is finally in print format, it’s often partly obsolete, especially in the educational technology field.
  2. The process is not about quality. I’ll get into this a bit more later in this post, but from my experience, many, many good articles are poorly reviewed simply because the reviewer is not well informed in the area. I frequently turn down review requests when I feel I am not capable of serving the process well. I’m not convinced this is often the case. At several recent conferences, I was exploring the poster sessions (often comprised of articles that are “downgraded” to poster sessions at research-focused conferences). I was surprised at the exceptional quality of several posters. Inexplicably, excellent research-based papers were not receiving the attention they deserved (especially when accepted papers were of noticeably poorer quality). I can only conclude that reviewers failed to understand the research they were reviewing.
  3. The process is not developmental. With few exceptions, journals and conferences run on tight time lines. A paper that shows promise is often not given time to be rewritten due to time constraints. Peer review should be a developmental process (I threw out a few ideas on this process in Scholarship in an Age of Participation). Journals should not be knowledge declaration spaces. Journals should be concerned with knowledge growth as a process in service of a field of inquiry.

What then does a “good” review look like?

Let’s say it takes 40-80 hours to write a 5-7,000 word paper. A reviewer, in a timely manner of at most two weeks from initial assignment of the review, needs to:

  • Read the article for general coherence
  • Map out (mentally at minimum) the core arguments and support provided
  • Evaluate the suitability of research methodology to the questions being considered in the paper
  • Decide if the conclusions draw by the researchers/authors are warranted by the research conducted, paying particular attention to common research errors (such as causation/correlation, generalization based on too limited a sample, etc).
  • Validate the quality and appropriate use of references, noting any significant gaps in existing literature
  • Determine if the paper advances some aspect of knowledge in the field (i.e. does the paper say something new? Does it draw novel connections between disparate research? Does it debunk existing views held by researchers in the field, etc.).
  • Finally, based on literature, methodology, conclusions, and original contribution to the field, determine if the article is suitable for publication. If the article is not suitable for publication, the reviewer should recommend improvements to bring the article up to high standards or suggest why it is not suitable for amending (i.e. out right rejection). If the paper is submitted for a conference, the reviewer may recommend downgrading it to a poster session.

How long should this process take?

From my experience, reviewing an article is at minimum a three to four hour task if the reviewer is familiar with the citations and methods utilized by the author(s). In many instances reviewers will require more time. For example, I’ve encountered articles that address a core subject that I am familiar with (learning technology or something similar) and then utilize a framework from sociology or psychology to express a viewpoint. If I’m not familiar with the core topic, declining to conduct the review is the only sensible response. Assuming I am familiar with the core concepts, I then need to take time to research the peripheral topics in order to effectively review the paper. This alone can add hours to a review.

The problem of being current in a diverse field…

In the field of emerging technologies, too many reviewers are not current and as a consequence should not be reviewing papers. If a person has not blogged, taught using Second Life, experimented with Twitter, or is not aware of the development of open educational resources, social learning theory, or personal learning environments and learning management systems, then they have no business conducting a review. Keep in mind, peer review is about subjecting your work to experts in the field. Because the emerging technology field is young, many reviewers are simply not competent to be conducting the breadth of reviews that they conduct.

Complicating this concerns is the diversity of our field. Educational technology is an aggregate field. We can just as soon discuss Vygotsky as we discuss XML, motivation theory as cloud computing, and social networks as systemic transformation. Even when journals are focused on a particular subset of this complex field, articles and references will require reviewers to devote significant time to effectively review an article.

Why bother reviewing papers if it’s so difficult? Well, it’s difficult because it’s important. The quality of thinking of the educational technology field is influenced by the quality of the papers being published. As such, peer review should be far more iterative than it currently is. The best journal I have come across in this regard is Innovate (James Morrison is the editor). Dr. Morrison provides a review process that is personal and developmental. I recall reviewing one article four times over a short period of time. The final product hardly resembled the original paper (I still suggested rejecting the final article, but I was “out voted” by the other two reviewers). In this instance, the paper quality was substantially improved through review, recommendation, and rewriting.

Peer review is also a personal learning process. Reviewing an article forces a person (at least it does for me) into a critical state of mind. Reviewing articles is a rich thinking and learning process. The reviewer, as much as the reviewed, benefits in the experience.

Why I’m frustrated

I recently submitted an abstract, which was accepted, for a special edition of a well known journal.

About four months after submission, I received the following response:

While a well-written paper, it appears to be a cut-and-paste from someone’s thesis or dissertation. I do not see how the history of the university is relevant for [deleted to preserve anonymity]. Some of it (The Contemporary University) might be of value to the reader, but I don’t believe the majority would hold the reader’s interest. The pages and pages of references are also a dead give-a-way that this is someone trying to get their graduate work published – which is appropriate. But it doesn’t appear to me that the writer took enough time to tweak the writing such that it would be appropriate for this journal.

(for what it’s worth, it was not a cut and paste article, it was written specifically for this journal submission)

The reviewer also selected a few responses about suitability of the article, relevance to journal theme (which in my eyes was moot as the editor had already accepted the abstract, confirming journal theme relevance), with the letter ‘S’ or ‘U’ posted beside each category. What does that mean?? Uber-fantastic? Stunningly Sucky? I don’t know. I suspect probably some variant of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”.

This single review is what we (it was a co-authored paper) were given for rejection. No indication of ways to improve the article or suggestions for resubmission were offered. I was irritated (and still am). So I sent the editor the following email:

I find the quality of the feedback unacceptable, however. Based on what you provided, it appears that the reviewer paid scant attention to the article and its relevance for publication. The core assertion Dr. [deleted for anonymity] make is: information creation/dissemination patterns of an era is reflected in the design of a society’s knowledge institutions. [more deletions for anonymity purposes]. What we do around information is (more so than web 2.0 and technologies) foundational to how higher education will be transformed.

I fully understand if you and [name deleted for anonymity] as editors feel the article was not of sufficient quality to warrant publication. However, if your decision is based on the single review you provided below (by an individual who spent precious little time on the article it appears and whose most substantial comment is to state that it was cut and paste from a masters project due to number of references) it seems peer review was not well attended in this rejection.

I then received a response saying “We’re currently chasing down the second review and trying to understand why it wasn’t sent to you automatically as it should have been”. I have tremendous respect for the editor that composed this response (I’m not being sarcastic – I know the individual and would classify this person as a friend). I assume therefore that some type of software glitch occurred, which in itself raises concerns about how rejections are handled. But even then, my core concerns above – journal review as a knowledge growth and idea development process – are not addressed. And it’s not unique to this one journal. I think it’s endemic to the educational technology field.

Peer review via blogs

In contrast to the rather feeble review our article received, consider the quality and diversity of comments on this article I posted on this site last week. I do almost all of my article publishing on my elearnspace or connectivism site. It is very rare that I receive a similar quality of feedback from an academic journal. What is the future of peer review if it’s value to the author and the field is reduced due to time and quality of reviews? Is it any wonder that NBER is questioning peer review decline?

How do we develop reviewers?

How did you learn to do reviews? From informal discussion with peers, it seems that most people learn to do reviews by being thrown into the process. It might have started with reviewing a few papers for a conference or by being asked to sit on a journal editorial board. Regardless, it appears that most reviewers do not have formal “training” in conducting reviews. It’s a trial an error process, which places great responsibility on a journal editor to ensure reviews are well conducted.

It is both a privilege and a responsibility to review the best ideas of another member of the field. But it’s also a matter of personal reputation. Generally, depending on the review software, the editor will know who submitted the review. I find it personally satisfying to be invited to repeat conference and journal reviews based on effort put into previous reviews. I know of many others who share these views. My views of peer review have been heavily shaped by “old timers” who appeal to high quality paper review processes for journals and conferences. I just wish there were more editors who saw scholarship as iterative and developmental and held journal reviewers to high standards. I also wish we had more reviewers who recognized the opportunity they have to advance quality within the educational technology field. After all, we jointly hold each others success in balance each time we sit down and start typing out a review.

What are your experiences? Misery, of course, appreciates company. Do you have any particularly nightmarish journal experiences (as author, editor, reviewer)? Or do you agree with my assertion that journals should serve to develop ideas, not solely evaluate?